The Gulf nation could help extend Washington’s “diplomatic reach” as it continues its strategic shift away from the Middle East.

Late last month, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani became the first head of state from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to visit Washington since Joe Biden’s presidency began. 

During the visit, Biden hailed Qatar as a “good friend and reliable partner” and promised to designate the Gulf country a major non-NATO ally. Qatar, now to become the third GCC state with the status, will benefit from special “defence trade and security cooperation” along with “military and economic privileges.”

This decision was not hasty - the Trump administration was also mulling the move. And even if the designation came later than some analysts may have expected, the decision sends a clear message about the value which the US places on its deep relationship with Doha, many years of close cooperation across several files, and three issues of particular concern to Washington.

The Afghanistan File

Since the Obama era, Qatar has been a useful conduit between Kabul and the West. Today the situation in post-US Afghanistan, nearly six months after the Taliban took control of the country, has led Washington to place increased value on its close relationship with Doha.

Last year, Qatar helped the US’ evacuation efforts from Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of Afghans left their country via Qatar in the aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover. Building on its go-between position, by August 2021 the Qataris started playing a special role in Afghanistan on behalf of Washington. In November, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that Qatar would formally become the diplomatic representative of the US in Afghanistan via a US interest section in the Qatari embassy in Kabul.

Europe’s energy concerns

From an energy standpoint, the crisis in Ukraine has raised major concerns in western countries which has put some attention on Qatar. There are fears that the Kremlin might weaponise Russia’s energy supplies to gain greater leverage over EU member-states if there is a war or if new sanctions are imposed on Moscow. As a result, the US and Doha have been discussing possible diversions of Qatar’s gas exports away from Asian customers so they can be delivered to Europe under such circumstances.

“We have another geopolitical crisis, another potential crisis [in which] the US is looking for help from its partners, and even though Qatar is far away from the geographical center of this crisis, Ukraine, it can make quite a substantial contribution by virtue of its gas reserves,” Dr Tobias Borck, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told TRT World.

Regardless of the extent to which such a plan is practical for Qatar, its possibility – and Qatar’s preparedness to respond positively – demonstrates the importance of the US for the Gulf nation. 

Mindful of the fact that the other Gulf Arab states are staying far more geopolitically neutral vis-a-vis Ukraine while not wanting to anger Moscow, Qatar is basically the only GCC member that is on NATO’s side in this standoff. 

Iran’s nuclear program

Qatar is trying to help narrow the differences between the US and Iran’s conditions for reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Doha has its own vested interests in seeing the P5+1 and Iran reconstitute the accord, which helps explain why Qatar wants to help bring about such an outcome. 

In terms of exporting its gas, Qatar has no alternative to the Strait of Hormuz. Thus, Doha has major incentives to help salvage the nuclear accord as a means of minimising any risk of war or regional insecurity in the Gulf.

Experts note that serving as a back-channel option for the US to Iran helps ensure Doha’s security and stability without sacrificing its neutrality. Because of Doha’s special foreign policy and strong relations with both Washington and Tehran, it is an ideal candidate in this regard.

“By working to reconcile US-Iranian differences, Qatar is applying basic principles of strategic hedging that small states use to ensure their security and stability without sacrificing their neutrality,” said Dr Imad Harb, the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.

“Like in the case of Afghanistan, it is in the best interest of the United States to have a back-channel option to Iran through Qatar. During the run-up to the signing of the JCPOA in 2015, Oman was such a back-channel and played host to secret negotiations between the United States and Iran."

"Conversely, to Iran, Qatar is a good interlocuter not only because it has excellent relations with the United States but also because Doha is Tehran’s partner in Arabian Gulf gas deposits and production. On a practical level, their economic interests are intertwined. Moreover, Iran provided Qatar with a lifeline during the blockade that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE imposed on the peninsular nation between 2017 and 2021." 

"In other words, the Islamic Republic should have no fear that Qatar would play a malevolent role in brokering future developments in US-Iranian relations.”

Washington’s Middle East strategies

At a time in which the US is losing influence in and continuing its grander strategic shift away from the Middle East, American officials will probably turn more to Qatar and other states in the region to help with “extending US diplomatic reach” – to Iran, and beyond. 

There is a realisation in Washington that all GCC states are important to US foreign policy in the region. Yet not all have received this special major non-NATO ally status, underscoring how the US leadership considers some Gulf Arab countries to be allies and others partners—a distinction not lost on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

This is not to say that the Americans have plans to fully leave the Middle East. “There is actually a conclusion that al-Udeid [airbase that houses the US and other foreign forces] will remain really important to US military posture in the Middle East and beyond,” explained Dr Borck. 

“On that level it’s also an acknowledgement of Qatar’s importance to US strategy and posture going forward.”

Considering all the controversies that have surrounded Qatar throughout the past two decades, this designation is a sign of how far Doha has come in terms of making the case to western countries that their relationships with Qatar are uniquely valuable. 

Indeed, US officials have targeted Qatar for its ties to Hamas, the Taliban, and various Muslim Brotherhood offshoots over the years. Some voices in Washington have essentially tried to depict Doha as a sponsor of terrorism and extremism, rather than an Arab country worthy of close ties with Washington.

“There were times when US institutions and US governments were questioning where Qatar was standing,” explained Dr Andreas Krieg, an assistant professor at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, told TRT World.

“Qatar has always been a fairly neutral player, engaging with all parties in a variety of different conflicts—that was usually seen as Qatar not being loyal, not predictable, or not reliable. I think the US, and other European partners, have now really understood the value of having this neutral country in the middle of a conflict-torn region.”

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Source: TRT World